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Monday, 3 June, 2002, 23:42 GMT 00:42 UK
FBI reforms will come slowly
FBI Director Robert Mueller and President Bush
FBI Director Mueller still enjoys Bush's backing

The Federal Bureau Investigation that existed before 11 September was not capable of stopping al-Qaeda.

Whether the FBI should be blamed for that is unclear. Whether it can change quickly enough to prevent the next attack is doubtful.

In the enormous post-mortem exercise now cranking up in Washington, the most surprising aspect so far is not how many missed signals there were, but how few.

Change in focus

A field agent in Phoenix, Arizona who was concerned about dubious characters at his local flight training centre, and the arrest by the FBI in Minneapolis of Zacharias Moussaoui are the only two concrete indications of terrorist activity that the FBI seemed to have picked up.

No wonder the FBI failed to join the dots if that were all the dots they had.

This was not an organisation that had any idea it was on to something.

Even the agent in Phoenix did not think his own discovery that worrying as he marked his message "non-urgent".

Before 11 September, the FBI's priority was law enforcement. It arrested people after they committed crimes, not before.

They were cops intent on breaking organised crime, violent crime, drugs and corruption in that order.
Convicted spy Robert Hanssen
The Hanssen spy scandal rocked the FBI and further eroded morale

They did have an intelligence unit but its chief focus was stopping foreign powers from spying in America.

Unfortunately for the FBI, the most damaging spy of the last decade turned out to be one of their own employees, Robert Hanssen, one of the directors of the unit.

Disasters like Hanssen, the Oklahoma bombing and the bungled investigation of Wen Ho Lee, a Taiwan-born nuclear scientist suspected of espionage, contributed to a catastrophic decline in morale within the Bureau. Managers became scared to take a risk in case it blew up in their faces.

When the Phoenix agent suggested compiling a list of all Arabs in flight training schools across America, headquarters said no, in case it was accused of racial profiling.

The previous director of the FBI, Louis Freeh, was alert to the threat of terrorism. He set up the Agency's Counter-Terrorism Centre.

After the attacks on the US embassies in East Africa and the USS Cole in Yemen, he doubled the numbers of FBI counter-terrorist agents abroad.

But the whole culture of the FBI continued to revolve around making arrests and solving crimes, not around prevention.

When Mr Freeh asked for an additional $58m to fight terrorism, it was turned down by the Attorney General John Ashcroft - on 10 September last year.

Not even the US Government thought that the FBI's main job was stopping terrorists.

The slow pace of change

The new director, Robert Mueller, has staked his career on changing the FBI mindset.
J Edgar Hoover
It took the FBI 20 years to shake off the damaging legacy of J Edgar Hoover

He has set up a Federal Bureau of Prevention and intends to hire 900 linguists, computer experts, engineers and scientists over the next few months to improve intelligence gathering and analysis.

He's also transferring 480 agents from criminal investigations to counter-terrorism.

He will tackle the bureau's dysfunctional technology, which made it difficult for field offices to share intelligence.

For the moment, Mr Mueller has the backing of the White House and Congress.

But these are changes that will take years to implement properly.

It took two decades for the Bureau to shake off the damaging legacy of J Edgar Hoover. Another fundamental shift in direction could take just as long.


Key stories

European probe

Background

IN DEPTH
See also:

03 Jun 02 | Americas
30 May 02 | Americas
17 May 02 | Americas
17 May 02 | Americas
17 May 02 | Americas
16 May 02 | Americas
01 Jun 02 | Americas
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